Decoding 2010 Political Attack Buzzwords If you listen to recent political ads, you hear that some candidates running for office are "extreme," "elite" or "Washington insiders." Campaigns use code words to paint a candidate as out of touch with voters. Daily Beast contributor Lee Siegel and Mary Kate Cary, a former White House speech writer, decode 2010's political attacks.
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Decoding 2010 Political Attack Buzzwords

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Decoding 2010 Political Attack Buzzwords

Decoding 2010 Political Attack Buzzwords

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

In the final days of the midterm election, candidates are taking sharper and more heated jabs at each other. If you listen to some of the ads out there, you'd think a lot of the candidates running for office are extremists, or elitists, or Washington insiders.

These code words are used to paint a candidate as out of touch with voters, but do they really mean anything, and are these attacks effective?

Columnist Lee Siegel and former White House speechwriter Mary Kate Cary will help us decode some of the rhetoric.

What do words like elite and extreme mean to you when you're trying to figure out whom to vote for? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is You can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood argues that drivers should hang up their cell phones, even the hands-free ones.

But first, code words on the campaign trail. Mary Kate Cary is a former contributing editor to US News and World Report - is a contributing editor to US News and World Report and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome, Mary.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Contributing Editor, US News and World Report; Former White House Speechwriter): Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: Also with us is Lee Siegel. He's a contributor to The Daily Beast and joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to you.

Mr. LEE SIEGEL (Contributor, The Daily Beast): Nice to be here.

LUDDEN: First, let's listen to a few of the ads that have been invoking some of these words. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is battling for his political life with Sharron Angle, who has got a lot of Tea Party support. Let's see how his campaign is defining her.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: What do you call a candidate who says the way things are going, the time may be coming for Second Amendment remedies and armed response to our government; who says a teenage rape victim should be forced to have the baby; who proposed a Scientology massage program for prisoners; and who says that Medicare and Social Security violate the Ten Commandments? What do you call that candidate? Extreme. Sharron Angle: Just too extreme.

LUDDEN: All right, many candidates associated with the Tea Party have been attacked as extreme, a popular label out there this campaign season. Lee - let me start with you, Mary Kate Cary. Why do you think Democrats are trying to project that term?

Ms. CARY: Well, I think when you can't argue on the policies, you start throwing the kitchen sink and name-calling and using this extreme label. And the facts are right now, unemployment is still above 10 percent.

People are really angry about the economy, and the Democrats are unable or unwilling to defend the Obama-Reid-Pelosi big Democratic agenda that has been going on for the last two years.

So they use things like this. Unfortunately, the few people who are out there who are saying things that are, shall we say, unfortunate like in the Delaware race and some of the things in the Nevada race, get blown out of proportion and get far more attention than the widespread concern that most Americans have.

LUDDEN: So a few extreme comments, they're painting the whole...

Ms. CARY: It helps them all. They all can jump on it. The Pennsylvania candidate started using it in his race, quoting the Delaware candidate, you know. And it's an easy thing to throw in when you're down in the numbers.

LUDDEN: Lee Siegel, what about the word extreme?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think there are there is extremist rhetoric, certainly, but I think long ago, the American political landscape became defined by titillating incidents rather than ungratifying facts or policy positions.

And I think people use these so-called extremist statements to attract attention. I really don't think that if they ever got elected to public office, they would act on them or that there would be any kind of quorum behind them, for these things to get passed.

But I think that this is all part of the entertainmentization(ph) of American politics. To call someone extreme simply means they don't they're out of touch with your position. And to call someone elitist means they're out of touch with the position that you hold.

I think what's more interesting is that the Republicans, for all their claims that they've become more ideologically pure, are now the centrifugal party. And the Democrats are the centripetal party.

And by that I mean that the Republicans are really fulfilling the promise, whatever its quality, the promise of democracy, which is to bring in more and more people from the outside, whereas the Democrats seem to have become more and more inbred.

It's hard to believe that two years ago, during the inauguration, Democrats were swooning over the fact that we had our first black president, when the coming storm was just about the engulf the country, and everyone could see what was happening.

But the Democrats got so caught up in their own mindset, their own kind of symbolic purity, that they just forgot what was before them. And so as a result, the Republicans have become this centrifugal party...

LUDDEN: And that's a term that no one will use in their campaign ad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: No, well, that's why I'm a journalist and not a consultant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Well, I mean, 30-second spots, you know, we know things do get dumbed-down, in a way. But you, Lee, you brought up another word that's been slung around a lot is elite. What is elite? What does it mean?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, as an elitist myself, I have a soft spot for anti-elitist rhetoric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: You know, there's no doubt that Obama's elite. I could not believe that when he was elected, people were comparing him to Henry James, and that was supposed to be a mark of his political virtue, Henry James, just what we need.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Remind us who Henry James was? Here, let me go look that up.

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, he wasn't a Republican from Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: All right, we have a few calls on the line already (unintelligible). This is Mike(ph) in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi there.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I'm in a district where there have been multiple Republican attempts to take out Dennis Moore. And now they're trying to take out Stephanie Moore.

And they throw everything out here, but the thing I told the person screening the calls, when I hear the word elitist, I automatically assume that the people that are claiming somebody is an elitist are anti-intellectuals.

And like you all were previously saying, they want to dumb-down an election to bring in the people who don't follow all of the details that should be followed to be a competent voter. But that's my comment. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Mary Kate Cary, what about that?

Ms. CARY: I would say I was thinking about it. My definition of an elite is someone who doesn't work hard and play by the rules. By the way, I should tell you, Lee, I took the Washington Post quiz in the Sunday Post this weekend, "Are you an Elite?," and I failed. I am not an elite because I have actually been to Branson, Missouri.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: But when you think about people who work hard and play by the rules, if you use that as a definition, you people who are in the, quote-unquote business elite, and a lot of those guys aren't playing by the rules, and that's why they're ending up in jail, disobeying the law, whatever.

In the sports elite, you see these elite athletes we don't have to name all the names who have gotten themselves into scandals with drugs, infidelity, things like that, because they don't think the rules apply to them.

The political elite, we see corruption. We see them operating the federal government without a budget. They see massive spending with no way to pay for it.

Families can't do that. The families who play hard I mean work hard and play by the rules have to have a budget. And I think that's feeding some of this anti-intellectual, anti-elite attitude that you're talking about, because they see people who don't have to abide by the rest of it like we do.

LUDDEN: What about, though, you do have people appointed out okay, we've got President Obama, who worked hard, played by many rules on the way up in his difficult life, just as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas came from a very impoverished background, worked hard, rose up on the merits, also pegged as elitists. Is that fair?

Ms. CARY: Well, I think that's coming from a similar term that we mentioned in the beginning: career politician. And sometimes elite means that they didn't have to hold a job and pay a payroll and understand what it's like to pick up a lunch bucket every day.

For example, former President Bill Clinton, the first time he ever paid a mortgage was after he left office. The guy had never been a homeowner. That feeds the sort of feeling that they don't understand the rest of us, we've got to make our mortgage payments, we've got to punch our time clock because they've never had a job or done anything but run for office.

LUDDEN: Lee Siegel?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, you know, the you have to remember the history of the term elite, as a term of abuse in American politics, it started with McCarthy, of course. And by the elite, McCarthy meant communists, and by communists, he meant simply intellectuals because unlike becoming a Republican or a Democrat, to become a communist, you at least had to read something.

So elites were intellectuals. Elites were not bound by the material facts of life as intellectuals. That's why business elites, they certainly are elites in the sense that they hold often the wealth and the power, they're not considered elites by many people because they have to abide by the material facts of life, the transactional facts of life, the business facts of life.

So I think elite has this meaning of people who can live immaterially, who are not burdened by fact, by mortgages certainly. And I think the other meaning is people who are the products of clandestine networks, you know, people who go to Ivy League Schools, people who are the products of extremes of influence, of log-rolling.

I think the term elite is used in that sense to contrast these cultural elites with, again, business elites who at least had to you know, they had to make money.

LUDDEN: I think there's one candidate out there this season who claims with pride that he did not go to Yale.

Ms. CARY: A badge of honor.

LUDDEN: A badge of honor, even though someone else, Anne Applebaum, pointed out recently the Ivy League schools have worked very hard in recent decades to broaden and diversify their student body, to not be elite. But yet it's still a bad label.

Mr. SIEGEL: But I think elite also carries this as a bona fide intellectual and someone who reads Henry James, I do think that elite carries this stigma of abstraction. And certainly, in some ways, it's legitimate to criticize elites.

LUDDEN: Is it legitimate to call President Obama an elite, who did have a mortgage and student loans at one point before the presidency?

Mr. SIEGEL: True. In the ordinary sense of someone who thinks, of someone who reads, of someone who in his abstractions does not seem as bound by material facts of life, as for all of their wealth, the business elite, yes, elite applies. Elite is very effective.

Do I myself buy elite as a stigma? No, of course not. I want thinking and articulate people running the country. But I do think that it has this terrific power because part of it is based in a certain kind of everyday truth.

LUDDEN: Mary Kate Cary, we're about to take a break, but we're hearing elite more this season than in past. Is it having its big heyday here, or is this a perennial?

Ms. CARY: I would say I've heard it more than usual this year, and I think the economy has a lot to do with it.

LUDDEN: All right, we're talking about the code words being thrown around in this year's midterm elections: elite, extreme, insider, among others. What do they really mean, and are they effective? And we'll get to more of your calls in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Jennifer Ludden.

We're talking about political code words, the terms that candidates throw at each other to paint the opposition as out of touch, words like insider or elitist or extreme.

NPR's tracking the terms candidates are using on the campaign trail this year. We're following them on Facebook, Twitter and their websites to see which words are buzzy and which ones are losing steam. Go to, and click on Fighting Words.

Our guests are Mary Kate Cary, a contributing editor to US News and World Report and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; also Lee Siegel is with us, a contributor to The Daily Beast.

What do words like elite and extreme mean to you when you're trying to figure out whom to vote for? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is You can join the conversation at our website. Just go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's get another example of what we're talking about here. Even candidates who aren't in Washington yet are being pegged with the Washington-insider tag. Here's an ad against Democrat Jack Conway, who's running for Senate in Kentucky against Rand Paul.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (As President Barack Obama): Jack Conway has given me a stamp of approval. Conway supported me for president, helped bankroll my campaign and even fought to pass my health care plan. Now, I need Conway in Washington because I know I can count on Conway to vote for more spending and debt, bigger government and higher taxes.

(Soundbite of telephone)

Unidentified Man #2: (As Obama) There he is now, Mr. Jack Conway. Now there's a guy I can work with in Washington.

LUDDEN: Okay, that's the faux-bama, as it's been called.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: Faux-bama.

LUDDEN: Lee Siegel, insider Washington insider, and you haven't even been there yet. What do you do to that, to respond to that?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, the discourse hasn't gotten past where it was two years ago. Remember? Then, the term was maverick, and everyone had to discredit the maverick, the self-styled maverick and show that the self-styled maverick was actually an insider. And we haven't gotten beyond that. We're still throwing around insider-outsider. It's just the old polarity in American politics: urban versus non-urban, the small towns versus the big cities.

People are suffering. People are feeling that their lives are being decided by invisible powers, and these invisible powers are outside, and more and more people are being pushed outside.

Of course, the teams have to be divvied up into outsider and insider. That's how people project their own experience onto the public landscape. I think it makes perfect sense. Whether it's a rational way to approach American politics and voting is another question. But it certainly appeals to people's emotional needs right now.

LUDDEN: All right, listeners, what does Washington insider mean to you? Call us at 800-989-8255. Mary Kate, you have been a speechwriter. How would you respond to some of these attacks?

Ms. CARY: Well, the rule in speechwriting is to start with the ends upon which we all agree and then make your case to your audience that your particular means are the best way to get us all to that end together, that which we all agree to.

And so that's a very unifying way of writing speeches, the way I write them. I don't think most speechwriters want to write the really divisive, ugly stuff. You want to be statesman and thoughtful and all that sort of thing.

So for example, when you hear somebody say, oh, this candidate's extreme, they want to abolish the IRS. You think wow, that is kind of nutty, you know, think of some sort of wrecking ball to the building or something.

Well, if you were doing this right, and you had a candidate who wanted to do something like that, you would start by talking about how we're all getting concerned that fewer and fewer Americans are paying federal income tax. And how sustainable is this to have fewer and fewer people paying for more and more services and a bigger government, things like that.

And so when you hear people like Rand Paul talking about a VAT tax or...

LUDDEN: Value added tax.

Ms. CARY: Value added tax. I'm sorry, he - it's Mitch Daniels is the VAT tax. Rand Paul last night in his debate was calling for a national sales tax. Both of these would replace the federal income tax and are taxes on basically consumption, which would encourage investing and saving.

Well, when you hear it that way, you think, well that sounds pretty reasonable to me. And so you see, oh, there's different means we can get to this end of, quote-unquote "fairness" and a healthier tax code and things like, that it's more fair.

And so you try to present things in a way that the most people in the room can be nodding their heads, saying yeah, I think that sounds reasonable.

LUDDEN: Right, but that's much more than 30 seconds. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: Oh, no, no, right. Yeah, yeah. But I do think there's something to be said for trying to present a little bit of depth below things like let's abolish the Department of Education.

And there are proposals now, for example, that 95 percent of all federal education funding has to go to the classroom. Well, that would abolish the federal Education Department in effect, by massively slashing their funding.

Most people know what their school's chancellor, like Michelle Rhee, does. They understand what the local school board does. They don't really understand what a federal bureaucrat at the Department of Education does.

LUDDEN: Let's get a listener on the line here. Alyssa(ph) is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hi.

ALYSSA (Caller): Hello.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

ALYSSA: I'm good.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

ALYSSA: All right. I think that when certain politicians are slinging around words like extreme or elitist, they're not really...

LUDDEN: Did you have a question there, Alyssa, or a comment?

ALYSSA: Yeah. I think the...

LUDDEN: You might need to turn down your radio.

ALYSSA: When they sling around words like extremist or elitist, they're trying to detract from their own campaign. And while in Harry Reid's case, calling Angle an extremist could be helpful to him in the long run, it's probably going to be more hurtful just because people are getting tired of all the negativity and all the oh, well, let's say this person is an extremist or not.

LUDDEN: All right. Lee Siegel, the listener suggests there that it might back there(ph). But are these labels effective?

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, I think they're very effective. I think that what they do is they give a concrete form to people's rage. I don't think the average American now really cares about whether the Department of Education should be abolished or not. I don't think the average American knows even what that would entail.

But if you hear someone angrily calling for that, then it gives a concrete form to the rage that you're feeling. And I think that if you make these, yes, extremist or inflammatory rhetorical claims, you put the opposition in a tough spot because the opposition, it will either be reduced to name-calling, calling you an extremist, or taking you on - taking your words on at face value, which is where you want them because you don't really mean what you're saying anyway.

No one's going to go to Washington and immediately proceed to start trying to abolish the Department of Education. But these are clarion calls. These are rage calls. This is the vicariousness that all Americans have become attuned to through TV and the movies.

And you can live through these calls for rage regardless of what, in particular, is being said. I think it's very, very useful, very effective.

LUDDEN: Mary Kate Cary, would you agree?

Ms. CARY: Yeah, I agree with everything you just said, Lee. And I think the illustration of it was last night in this Kentucky debate, watching Jack Conway try to throw these labels around and Rand Paul actually giving very thoughtful answers back, where he talked about some of his policies that are not I mean, he does have, you know, some ideas that are a little bit out there, but in this case, he was talking about things like we're talking about here, you know, reforming the tax code and things like that.

And he came across as very senatorial and very thoughtful, and it was his best debate so far. And I think he's ahead in the polls for a good reason.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get another call. Alex(ph) is in San Francisco. Hi, Alex.

ALEX (Caller): Hi. I wanted - my comment specifically is really the equivocation and the blindness of the media. When we do point out, or when other politicians do point out extremisms - Sharron Angle, for example. How can anyone say that someone basically saying that a rape victim should have the perpetrator's baby, or a victim of incest should have the perpetrator's baby?

When these people are saying that - when people are being called extremists for things like defunding the VA or radically transforming long-established institutions, and the media just basically says he says, she says.

I think that there is an utter blindness in the media and a sort of jocular willingness to not take the extremists seriously for the extremists that they are.

LUDDEN: So you think the media should draw a distinction. I mean, what is an extremist for you? I mean - and does an extremist for one person, does it differ depending on where you stand?

ALEX: Well, sure it does. But when you are proposing to dramatically alter the established - sort of the established understanding of our society, that's extremist, and we need to call it that. And I'm sorry, Sharron Angle is an extremist.

Someone like Christine O'Donnell, maybe she's comical for everyone, but she's certainly an extremist. Pat Toomey, who wants to privatize Social Security, is an extremist. These are people who are dramatically - who are proposing to dramatically upset the way things have worked, which ironically they call themselves conservatives.

So if we're talking about sort of maintaining continuity with the structures of society that is - that's sort of mainstream. If we're talking about completely tipping over the table, which is what a lot of these folks are saying, or someone like Ken Buck is saying, then you need to call them for the extremist that they are, and rather than just simply withdraw into - sorry, maybe Lee Singer's(ph) sort of intellectual cocoon of, oh, this is just play. This is play...

LUDDEN: All right, well...

ALEX: ...this that and the other.

LUDDEN: Well, let me put your point to the here - the people here. Thank you for your call, Alex. Lee Siegel, should the media call out more and label extremists extremists? So how do you do that?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, they are. I don't know what the last - what media the last caller is referring to, but in all the newspapers I read, the magazines and the TV shows I watch, these extremists are called extremists.

But my point is not that they're just fooling around, these people making these radical claims, which I often find morally repulsive, but that they are deadly serious, but that they don't mean in particular necessarily what they are saying. What they are saying is look at me, pay attention to me, vote for me and I will serve as a conduit for your rage.

LUDDEN: But is one person's extremism, another person's, you know, in touch with the common man? I mean...

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think they are in touch with the common man, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. You know, in the last century, in the '30s, it was a very bad thing. And mass movements often end very badly. I don't think this is the beginning of a heinous mass movement. I think people are out of work. People feel - I was about to use an expletive - an angry expletive...

LUDDEN: Not on daytime talk radio, thank you.

Mr. SIEGEL: capture their rage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: But people feel fornicated, and they want a reflection of their rage. I'm not saying this is a good thing. I'm not saying I'm going to vote for these people. I'm not saying I'm going to vote for Carl Paladino. But when he stood up looking for the bathroom in the middle of a debate, I thought that captured the whole atmosphere of American political life, and he almost had my vote.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: All right, let's bring in another...

Mr. SIEGEL: Symbols are very powerful. That's what trying to say, beyond rationality. And you can't retreat into a smug liberal position as certain liberal columnists like to do and poke fun at these people and be snide about them and just dismiss them. You have to understand the visceral power of symbols, and that is exactly what our president - so falsely praised for playing hardball Chicago politics, which he cannot do - this is exactly the point that he's missed.

LUDDEN: All right, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Margaret(ph) is on the line from Cleveland, Ohio. Go right ahead, Margaret.

MARGARET (Caller): Hi. My comment was just to illustrate the emotional - the instant emotional trigger of these words, like this conversation today has kind of an eye-opener for me. Because during the presidential election when people were calling Obama and other people elitist, I found that laughable because instantly in my mind when I hear the word elite I think of someone who is distinguished in their field due to lots of study, lots of hard work. They're very familiar and well-versed in their, you know, areas of expertise. That's I what I think of when I think of elite.

And it hadn't even dawned on me until today's conversation that, you know, other people think of elite as simply people of high status. And those people of high status probably got there due to lying, cheating and connections and whatnot. And I just realized today, oh, no wonder I found that so laughable because I wasn't even considering the other possible definition of the word elite. And this just goes to show how just these buzzwords, all they really do is reinforce whatever you already think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Margaret, thank you for your call.

MARGARET: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Mary Kate Cary, it used to be Republicans that had the elite label.

Ms. CARY: Right. Country-club elite.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Ms. CARY: That's right. And it's kind of turned around on its head a little as the ivory-tower type of - as Lee calls it in his column that we have here -it's very important to be the proud possessor of a noble idea of change, and that has become the big idea of taking action and responsibility away from individuals and giving it to the government is a part of elitism, that people -the problems are too intractable in our society for anybody to fix them on their own by volunteering or starting a business or trying to fix things in their family. The government has to come in because the government knows better. And so therefore the people who run the government are the ones with the big ideas and who are elite and wonderful, and that's antithecal(ph) to a traditional Republican who doesn't want, you know, bigger government and more of a nanny state.

LUDDEN: All right, I think we have time for one more quick call. Here, Frank(ph) is in Hollywood, Florida. Go right ahead, Frank.

FRANK (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon, great show. My - I have a comment, and the way I look at it is either you have Republicans or conservatives who are extreme, and you have elitist Democrats, liberals that are, you know, named that way. But what we don't see are anybody in the middle compromising, working together, going across to the other side saying, hey, look, let's cooperate and bring our ideas together.

I think this is a significant change from what we are accustomed, what we've seen in the past as in elections and campaigns and debates. So, right now, all we see are people yelling at each other, calling each other names, referring to them in the most negative sense. And it could be a social aspect that we just now have to get accustomed to, but at the end of the day, I believe it's just that things have just changed drastically socially that people have to be extremists or have to be elitists.

LUDDEN: Hmm. Lee Siegel, what about that?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think American politics has always been rambunctious, divisive, ugly, and I think the Internet has upped the ante. I think the Internet has created an atmosphere of informality and kind of brute intimacy in American life that's unprecedented. So I'm not shocked or outraged or disheartened by this. And I would be disheartened if - at a time when so much is solid - that is solid melting into air, and people are losing their homes and jobs. I would be disheartened if they're - there were not anger. I would just like to end with an elitist quotation in Latin on the uses of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: ...rage in American society. (Latin spoken) He whom the gods wish to destroy, he first makes angry.

LUDDEN: I think we can leave things there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: There it is.

LUDDEN: All right, Lee Siegel is a contributor to The Daily Beast. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. And Mary Kate Cary is a contributing editor for U.S. News and World Report. Thank you both so much.

Ms. CARY: Thanks for having us.

Mr. SIEGEL: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, will Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood really push for a ban on cell phones while driving, even hands-free? We'll ask him. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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